Before the election, I told a friend I was going to miss the president when he left office. He replied, “Obama is the Kennedy of our time.” I agreed, but I didn’t grasp the full import of his words until I spent two days screaming, crying and grieving over the election outcome.
Obama has been compared to John F. Kennedy numerous times, most notably by the slain president’s own daughter (and my namesake), for his ability to galvanize young people to flock to public service and for embodying an indescribably cool American spirit. For millions of millennials, his two campaigns represented their maturation, the time when they came into their own as adults and as a political force.
But more than any other president in recent memory, Obama has understood his place in the imagination of the very youngest, our children. There lies the powerful fact that for many children who are still some years away from voting, Obama is the only president they have ever known. A Black president, in their eyes, is not extraordinary. They are blissfully unaware of how he broke the mold, the 220-year stranglehold White men had on the White House before Obama entered power.
He is the children’s president.
The sensitivity Obama has shown towards children with regards to his unique role in American politics is encapsulated in my favorite photograph of him taken by White House photographer Pete Souza, bending down to allow a 5-year-old boy to touch his hair. The exchange, as reported by The New York Times, went as follows:
‘I want to know if my hair is just like yours,’ he told Mr. Obama, so quietly that the president asked him to speak again.
Jacob did, and Mr. Obama replied, ‘Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?’ He lowered his head, level with Jacob, who hesitated.
‘Touch it, dude!’ Mr. Obama said.
As Jacob patted the presidential crown, Mr. Souza snapped.
‘So, what do you think?’ Mr. Obama asked.
‘Yes, it does feel the same,’ Jacob said.
My hair, President Obama did not have to say, is just like yours, Jacob. One day, the Oval Office could be yours, too. The gesture of stooping his tall frame to meet this small child where he was at was quietly moving. Epic in its humility.
Over the span of eight years, millions of children, especially Black children, saw a president who looked like them, fought for them, played with them, and cared for them. They saw the father of two daughters who have grown into beautiful, poised young women, the older of whom was accepted to Harvard. They saw the loving husband of a lioness who spoke out against the misogyny of Donald Trump, voice quavering throughout, as she said:
We’re telling our sons that it’s O.K. to humiliate women. We’re telling our daughters that this is how they deserve to be treated. We’re telling all our kids that bigotry and bullying are perfectly acceptable in the leader of their country.
They saw a President who made it a point to celebrate children, be it through hosting princess parties for little Black girls to promote literacy and positive self-image or talking to children from all over the world, children of all different colors, creeds, and costumes. He seemed equally delighted to meet a young Muslim girl refugee as he did the son of British royalty.
Whether he was playing with babies dressed as elephants or running around the White House lawn, President Obama was his most genuine self with children.
When these children become older and see these pictures of themselves with this remarkable man, they’ll remember a president who was dignified and gracious enough to shake hands with someone who had the cruelty to question whether he was born in America.
They’ll remember someone who said of an unarmed teenager, dismissed as a thug in a hoodie, who was shot dead by a vigilante: “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
They’ll remember a champion of people who finally became visible and heard during his presidency—Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants, gay people, women, and of course, the youngest Americans whose futures remain unwritten, waiting for them to grab pens and start writing them as how they envision them to be.
I will miss you, President Barack Hussein Obama.